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The Libation Bearers

Aeschylus

Lines 653–718

Lines 585–652

Lines 719–837

Summary

Orestes is pounding at the palace door, calling for the slave to open up and asking if there is a man inside the house. The porter finally comes to the door and asks where Orestes has come from and who he is. Orestes orders the porter to announce him to the masters of the house, saying that he comes bearing news. At first he asks for the mistress of the house, but then corrects himself, saying that the master would be better, for then no words need be minced. With women one must speak delicately, whereas men can speak directly to one another.

Clytamnestra then emerges from the palace, and graciously addresses Orestes and Pylades. She says, "we have all that you might expect in a house like ours," and offers them warm baths and beds. If, however, the travelers have arrived not seeking comfort, but in order to do political business, then it is the men's concern and she will communicate it to them.

Orestes lies about his origins to his mother in order to gain her trust. He says that he comes from Delphi, and that he encountered a stranger named Stophios on his way to Argos. This man made him promise to bring news to the palace that Orestes was dead. Orestes says that he does not know whether he is addressing the right person, but the parents ought to know the fate of their child.

Clytamnestra cries out that this story spells out her ruin, for the curse of the house is still at work. She laments that the curse has stripped her bare of all that she loves, now taking Orestes down. She had tried so hard to keep him clear of death, as he was the only hope of curing the Furies's evil revel in the palace.

Orestes says that he regrets not bringing happier news to such prosperous hosts. For, what bond is stronger than that between guest and host? But, he could not ignore his duty to fulfill his promise, and so had to convey this sad news.

Clytamnestra assures Orestes that he will be no less welcome in the house, despite his message. He is a true friend. She then remarks that the hour is late, and orders a servant to take him and Pylades to the guest chambers, where he can be attended in a manner that befits the house. She announces that she will commune with the master of the house in order to discuss the news.

Analysis

This passage is packed with many layers of meaning. It should be a recognition scene between mother and son, but Orestes puts up a wall of lies to keep his mother from discerning his intent before he can carry out his plan. In doing so, he is like Odysseus, who, throughout the Odyssey, lies about his name and origins. Such deceit is the tool of a man who is not safe in his own home.

Orestes's use of manipulative language to gain entrance to the palace is problematic. Throughout the Agamemnon, we saw how Clytamnestra used cunning words to carry out her plots. While the Greeks prized strong rhetorical skills, they were also suspicious of them. A slick-talking politician could use words to confuse the issue and manipulate the situation to his own ends. Clytamnestra did the same when she convinced Agamemnon to walk on the fine tapestries of the house when he arrived back from Troy, thus sealing his fate.

Orestes's plan had been to find Aigisthos and kill him before he could ask his name. However, his expectations go awry when Clytamnestra herself answers the door. Thinking on his feet, he immediately conjures up a story about how he is a stranger from Daulis, come to bring news of Orestes's death.

Orestes's deceit is particularly interesting in light of his statement to the porter that "man speaks to man with boldness and sets forth his meaning without reserve." Men are strait talkers, he asserts. However, when confronted by an unexpected situation, Orestes immediately resorts to lies. One could also interpret his statement to the porter to mean that when speaking to women, deceit is always involved. Thus, he is forced to lie to Clytamnestra in order to compete on a level playing field. Either way, we see that when women take strong action, a corruption of the normal order of things ensues.

Orestes's statement to the porter is also significant because it tells us not to trust anything that Clytamnestra is about to say. She will try to arouse our sympathies by playing the good host and by lamenting the news of her son's death. We must not fall victim to these tricks.

Whether or not Clytamnestra is sincere in her sadness at Orestes's news, it clearly would have been better for her had Orestes really been dead. It is interesting that she calls him the only hope for the house. Is this an entirely ironic statement, intended to give false pretences of grief but written also as a sign to remind the audience that Orestes is about to fulfill his function as the hope of the house? Or does she mean that Orestes might have come home and assumed the kingship, thus putting the kingdom back in proper order and putting the bloodshed behind him. Her intentions are ambiguous, in keeping with her complex character.

This ambiguity is reflected in Clytamnestra's words. In welcoming Orestes, she says that he and Pylades will be attended to in a manner that befits the house. On this surface, this means that the travelers will receive a royal welcome. However, as we know that the house sits under a bloody curse, we should be suspicious of any welcome that "befits" it. Moreover, Clytamnestra's reference to "warm baths" is dubious, as we remember that she murdered Agamemnon in his own bath. Perhaps she does recognize Orestes after all, and is trying to lure him into the house where she can do away with him.

More likely, however, Clytamnestra is totally unaware of the danger that strands before her, and speaks words whose meanings even she does not fully understand. This is a common tactic in tragedy and is called a 'double hermeneutic.' Aeschylus uses the characters to convey an ironic meaning to the audience, without making the characters themselves aware of what message they are carrying.

At every stage in Clytamnestra's speeches, we can either read her sympathetically or not, for Aeschylus has left her true emotions in an ambiguous state. Just because she has been cruel and devious in the past does not mean that she could not lament the death of her son. We must remember that it was for the love of her murdered daughter that Clytamnestra killed Agamemnon in the first place.

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